Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I'm 63 years old, and even though my kids think I'm too old, I want to start running. Can you help me to prove them wrong?

Dear Reader: At the risk of wading into the middle of a family argument, we believe that it's never too late to become physically active. And if you're careful about how you begin -- and maintain -- your new exercise regimen, there's no reason why running can't be at least one part of the program.

To get your kids on board, let's start with all the good things that come from regular exercise. And when we say exercise, we're referring specifically to activities like walking briskly, jogging, running, swimming laps, dancing, raking leaves (you get the idea) that will increase your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time.

Regular exercise can help you to control your weight, reduce your risk of serious health problems like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and even improve your sleep and your mood. It also strengthens muscles and bones, which not only makes it easier to perform everyday tasks and activities, but also can help with balance and thus reduce the chance of a fall. If you're an older adult, regular exercise increases your chances of living longer.

To succeed at your new running program, you'll need to be smart about the way you get started. We believe it's always wise to enlist your primary care physician as your partner when making this kind of lifestyle change. She or he knows your health history and will be able to flag any potential risks or problems.

As for running itself, there are several things you can do -- must do, really -- to make a go of it. Before you even take your first step, be sure you have the right shoes. They'll not only cushion your step, they will also help with alignment and guard against knee, hip and ankle pain. Good socks and comfortable exercise clothes are also important.

Although your goal is running, you're best off beginning with a long, brisk walk. You'll be surprised at how quickly your heart rate goes up. Plan a route -- 20 minutes is reasonable to start -- and see how it feels. As the days and weeks go by, you can increase both pace and distance. When you're ready, start mixing a few minutes of running into your brisk walk.

Easing into a run-walk routine will help you build strength and allow your body to adjust to the physical impact. As with any physical activity, include a slow warm-up and a deliberate cool-down.

Some of our patients find that having a goal to train for, like a 5k charity run, helps them to stick to their routine. Others prefer the camaraderie of exercising with a class or a friend. The main thing is balance. Don't try to do too much too quickly. And whatever you choose, have fun.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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